by G.H. Evans, 2003, 21 min. starring
Takaharu Kato, Hiroaki Ohfuji, Hinaku Maruyama, Tetsuya Iida, Nobuyoshi Niwa, and Toru Takamizawa
A forest, Japan. A man stops, sits and waits. Behind him, at dawn, the sun streams through the trees and, as he waits for his last day on earth, he contemplates. He thinks about what he has done to draw him here. Why he has to wait. As he waits, a traveller approaches him and asks just what he's doing. And so the wanderer explains what has happened.
Samurai Monogatari is the first film from Random Films, a Cardiff-based outfit. I can hear screams of protest from some people, saying why is Snowblood Apple reviewing, of all things, a Welsh movie? Well, partly because we want to, but mostly because the entire thing is done in Japanese with Japanese actors and is a Kurosawa-esque Samurai revenge epic condensed into under half an hour and filmed in a forest just outside glamorous Treforest, home of, well, a former polytechnic university and, er, not much else actually. That said, Evans has done an excellent job of making a damp Welsh wood look just like you'd imagine 19th century Japan should look like.
In a forest, a man is sitting, waiting to die. As he philosophises - "we all have to live in some form of structure; there is nothing quite like the beast of humanity; we must all pay our dues" there's a montage of shots as we start to piece together his history - two samurai stand by a river, they fight, and one falls. Back to the forest, a merchant appears and asks what on earth this man is doing - and is shocked by the response. He's waiting for someone to kill him, following a bad decision made when he was young, despite a good decision a decade ago. He was a samurai, who killed without thought, who enjoyed taking revenge for the torture of his family, who was filled with hate. But after he begged his master for release, because he was sick of killing, and he was refused and had to kill his master, he had a sea-change of attitude - not least because he created an eight year-old orphan, who he felt duty-bound to provide for for the next decade. Now, ten years on from the slaying, his attitude is that of circular fate, that he will now get what he has deserved for many years.
Really, it's not the plot that this short's all about. To be honest, you couldn't really cram very much plot into less than half an hour, let alone develop all the storylines that you might expect from a film of this sort. Evans has instead focussed on the why rather than the what - the character of the former samurai is enormously dignified and at no point do you really have cause to question his motivation. As such, Samurai Monogatari is very much a character study of a broken man, looking in depth into his soul to find out why he regrets his past so much, and why he feels his life should now end.
A large part of the telling of the story though isn't in the dialogue, it's in the way the tale is shot. Made in high-contrast black and white, Evans' camera is almost exclusively static; instead of frenetic action, the cinematography is all about careful composition, each shot looking almost like a still-life, adding a defiant dignity to the story-telling. Even the fight sequences have a balletic lyricism to them, implicit rather than explicit, although still not lacking in dynamism or sheer bloodiness.
A tale of an extreme of human existence, a poetic character study of a man who regrets his past and who knows retribution must come,
a hauntingly poetic circular tale of retribution and consequence, Samurai Monogatari feels ancient yet contemporary, still yet kinetic, dignified yet oddly edgy. The film yields greater depth on each viewing, but still feels fresh despite its short running time. With the forthcoming release of a horror genre movie, namely a zombie epic, Snowblood Apple will be keeping an interested eye on the output of Random Films in the future.
Snowblood Apple was lucky enough to get an interview with director Gareth Evans.
- How did you come to make a mini-Samurai epic?
Basically I was in the middle of doing an MA in scriptwriting at the time, and I had been experiencing a severe case of writers block - I had chosen to write a very personal piece with very strong personal feelings but found that, after a year or so of fleshing them out into a script, that those feelings and those opinions were no longer a part of my life, I'd changed, and that anything I had written since felt forced and ingenuine.
My confidence in my writing had dropped a little (not having completed anything in over a year will do that to you) so I figured I'd just crack out a short script - just so I could say I had seen out a writing project from beginning to end. The short I wrote was a samurai film, and I had no real intentions at that time to make it. It seemed an inconceivable idea.
- What movies / directors influence you?
Obviously - from the short - it's clear that I'm heavily influenced by Japanese cinema and culture. I guess if I had to drop names of directors who have had a lasting impression I'd have to make mention of Takeshi Kitano, both Kurosawas (Akira and Kyoshi), and Takashi Miike (though not so much for this particular project). Prior to his release of Zatoichi my main influnces from Kitano came in the very distinct pacing of his films. Also the fragmented approach to editing was a particular interest. I love how his films flash both forward and backwards acting as both a reflection and premonition of the plot.
From Akira Kurosawa of course I guess the main influence came from his film Rashomon. Having seen an interview with its cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, I was able to pick up a few hints on how to shoot and how to light actors in a particular environment.
- How did you manage to make Wales look so much like Japan?
Well, basically, I knew that if I was ever to make it that I would have great difficulty in shooting at authentic locations - so right from the beginning I made sure that the locations were restricted. Hence, the majority of the film is set in natural locations, forests, riverbanks etc. In these environments you're given a blank canvas in terms of time and location - it's an untouched landscape where your characters and their outfits dictate where they are and at what period of time.
For any interior shots however, we used artistic license to just film in complete darkness with spotlights on the actors. This was on the basis of seeing the opening dialogue in Kurosawa's Kagemusha; the set for that scene was minimal - with only slight dressing in the background. Our budget meant that we had to make it even more minimal - but I like the disorientation of the scenes. We hit a limitation but used it to our advantage.
- There's a credit for the "wig concept"...
Ah right, well what happened was ... I was struggling desperately to find a realistic looking wig to recreate the chyonmage hairstyle worn at the time. After recieving a number of "fancy dress" costume wigs from Tokyo (kindly sent by Miwa Sakaguchi - who coincidentally also features in the thanks credits) I found that while they all looked as I wanted them to, they weren't really all that convincing.
Then one of the guys at Acen (the office I work at) came up with an idea to modify your basic cheap skull cap bald wigs. What we did was to make small incisions on the top and the sides so that we could then pull the actors' real hair out through the slots and style it exactly the way we wanted to. It seemed to work well - there are shots (mostly outdoors) where the creases and the line between hair and wig is pretty noticeable - but overall for £2 a wig it worked brilliantly well. And considering we were a few days prior to filming when he came up with the idea I felt it was well deserving of a thank you credit.
- How did you manage to find Japanese actors to cast? You couldn't have had too many available to you.
My fiancee is Japanese/Indonesian and as a result I had been learning Japanese in order to speak with her mother who has a basic understanding of English.
I had started meeting with two Japanese students living in Wales once a week to learn from them basic conversation skills. I showed the script to Hinako (who plays the wife of a merchant) and she showed it to a number of her friends at the University. They showed an interest in the project so the script was translated into Japanese and then before I knew it we were arranging the production of the short.
- Was it difficult to direct a movie made in a language that you're not fluent in?
It's difficult in terms of being sure whether or not the actors are hitting their lines correctly. Hinako was on standby to tell us if there were any changes necessary and then of course once I had a rough cut put together I would take on board comments on things to change in order to enhance their performances - so vocally I really had to rely upon others. But being able to understand it or not - the very first time I heard a line being spoken on the first day of filming I had a huge grin on my face. It's a very bizarre feeling.
For the body movement though I had full control and was able to dedicate a lot more time to it. At the start of the shoot only one cast member had ever acted before, so it was very much a case of giving almost mechanical instructions to convey the emotions of the character. On occasion I would maybe suggest what the character was thinking, but more often than not I relied upon simple instructions like "look towards that tree for 2 seconds, let your head drop slowly to look at that leaf, hold for 1 second.....etc".
It makes the task easier for a first time actor and helps me get exactly what I want for the shot. But despite the mechanical approach they all gave great performances and I feel that they genuinely inhabited their characters with the emotions far more than just following an instruction.
- The fight sequences are pretty convincing. How did you manage to do make them like that on a (presumably) low budget with few special effects? Did you choreograph them yourself?
I think the great thing about samurai films is that the duels are usually very short lived; it's building the tension before the strike that makes them so impressive. I took particular influence from the climactic duel of Kurosawa's Sanjuro which I feel is the best of its kind.
In a later sequence the choreography was more complex. I had designed a scene with Huw Lloyd which we had envisaged being played out by the actors. However, the problem we had was that they had a very limited time to film before having to return home for the summer and so we ended up having to act out the sequence ourselves (hence the silhouettes).
With hindsight, its the one scene I'm least happy about - not in terms of choreography but more in terms of me being far too big and clunky to not be noticeable. Maybe it was a little too self-indulgent on my part (I really should have brought in someone smaller to spar with Huw) but such was the rush of production - we had 3 days to film everything - that this minor gripe became unavoidable.
- What projects have you got lined up in the future? A feature? What releases are forthcoming?
Well, since the samurai film we've been keeping ourselves quietly busy in production of three more short films. All varying genres - as a result of our reluctance to be pigeon-holed to one particular type of film we've set ourselves up as "random films" with our next three releases being a horror, a comedy, and a pseudo-documentary.
After this we're about to start filming a very brief action short to act as a pre-cursor for a feature project that I'm currently in discussions to direct with a company in Japan. It's all early doors with the Japan project so I can't say much about it but the best way I can describe it is the twisted offspring of the Coens, Raimi, Kitano, Miike and Kitamura. A little something for everyone.
Thanks to Gareth for giving us this interview!
Snowblood Apple Rating for this
Entertainment value: 7/10
Violence: 8/10 - actually quite brutal in places
Fight Scenes: whack! thump! blammo!/10
Wigitude: thoroughly wiggy
Gore: several gooey splurts thereof
Special Effects: considering the whole thing cost £800, remarkably effective
Films in a Similar Style: Zatoichi, Ran, pretty much any Akira Kurosawa movie you can name
This film is currently under discussion here at the Snowblood Apple Forums.
Samurai Monogatari Wallpaper
please note: the actual paper does not have the Snowblood Apple logo on it.
You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Mandi Apple, 2004
http://www.randomfilms.co.uk/samurai/ - the official site for Samurai Monogatari
http://www.randomfilms.co.uk/shop/samurai - this movie is now available to buy directly from the production company
http://www.randomfilms.co.uk/ - home of Samurai Monogatari's production company Random Films
http://www.jpreview.com/promo/sm.html - a short article by GH Evans about the film
http://www.celfcymru.com/sioegelf/index.php?page=0ff0a43d&lang=2 - interview with Gareth Evans